STREET. LOUIS (News21USA) — Raja the elephant has been one of the biggest attractions, literally and figuratively, at the St. Louis Zoo for decades. Now it’s moving away.
The zoo announced Thursday that the male Asian elephant born at the zoo nearly 31 years ago will be moved to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, likely in about a year. The hope is that he will join four females in Columbus, breed and mentor a young male there.
Raja was the first elephant born at the St. Louis Zoo, and the 10,000-pound animal’s birthday on December 27 is a big deal each year, with treats, songs and many visitors signing an oversized birthday card.
“This news is bittersweet for all of us,” Michael Macek, director of the St. Louis Zoo, said in a statement. “We know Raja is loved by his fans and the Zoo family and we will miss him here, but we know this is what is best for Raja and the survival of this species.”
Asian elephants are endangered and there are fewer than 50,000 in the wild, according to The World Wildlife Fund. Habitat loss and poaching are blamed for their plight. They are the largest land mammal on the Asian continent.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Asian Elephant Species Survival Plan recommended Raja’s transfer, the St. Louis Zoo said. The program seeks to manage the Asian elephant population in North America and maximize the health, well-being and genetic diversity of the elephants, the zoo said.
Raja is the father of the only three female Asian elephants of reproductive age in St. Louis. The other three females are too old to reproduce and one of them is Raja’s mother. In October, Rani, a 27-year-old Asian elephant, died after becoming agitated when a small loose dog managed to enter the zoo and upset the herd.
Macek said Raja’s movement reflects the natural behavior of wild elephants. While females raise their young and live in multigenerational family groups, males live alone or in small bachelor herds. They reproduce and then move on, Macek said.
“Raja’s move to Columbus provides an environment in which he and others can naturally grow their families, which is an important component to their well-being,” Macek said.
The move is expected to occur in late 2024 or early 2025. When Raja leaves, the St. Louis Zoo will have room for a new male. The zoo said the male is tentatively expected to be a 15-year-old boy named Samudra from the Oregon Zoo in Portland.
Meanwhile, Raja’s 16-year-old daughter Jade is pregnant with her first calf and will give birth around the time Raja leaves; Asian elephants are usually pregnant for up to 22 months. It will be the first elephant calf born at the zoo through artificial insemination. The father is housed at the Denver Zoo.